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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Leaders: 8 Steps to Be a Mindful Listener

By Valerie Brown — May 09, 2016 7 min read
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Today’s guest blog is written by Valerie Brown, President of Lead Smart Coaching, LLC, specializing in mindfulness and leadership training for school leaders and others.

Listening is the oldest and perhaps the most powerful tool of healing. It is often through the quality of our listening and not the wisdom of our words that we are able to effect the most profound changes in the people around us. When we listen we offer sanctuary for the homeless parts within the other person. That which has been denied, unloved, devalued by themselves and others. That which is hidden. When you listen generously to people, they can hear the truth in themselves often for the first time. Rachel Naomi Remen

Research on listening indicates that the we spend about 80% of our waking hours communicating: writing 9%, reading 16%, speaking 30% and 45 to 50 percent of our day engaged in listening, to people, music, TV, radio, etc. About 75 percent of that time we are forgetful, pre-occupied, or not paying attention. One of the factors influencing this statistic is that the average attention span for an adult in the United States is 22 seconds.

It’s no surprise to note the length of television commercials is usually anywhere from 15 to 30 seconds. This constant change of focus makes it more difficult to listen for any significant length of time. Immediately after we hear someone speak, we remember about half of what was said. A few hours later we remember only about 10 to 20 percent. Yet, less than five percent of us have ever concentrated on developing our listening skills.

When people hear these numbers, they often say: “This is so interesting. I know that I spend hours preparing to speak. I don’t think I’ve ever consciously prepared to listen.”

Listening, deeply listening, is a greatly underrated life and school leadership skill. Perhaps one reason for this is that our western culture often privileges the fast-talking, think-on-your feet mode of being. Listening for genuine connection and understanding, listening that engenders trust and authenticity asks so much of us.

I was reminded of this popular wisdom about listening: When two people are in dialogue, there are actually three conversations going on. The first conversation is the external conversation between the two people. The other two conversations are each person’s internal dialogue.

Real listening is hard because it is increasingly difficult to focus because of constant distraction and because attention is fractured. Linda Stone, the former Microsoft executive coined the term ‘continuous partial attention’. In other words, attention is seldom fully focused. In his New York Times article, The Art and Science of Listening, Seth S. Horowitz notes the difference between hearing and listening. Hearing, according to Horowitz, is a highly underrated sense. Hearing is quantitatively faster than visual recognition, at least 10 times faster because hearing has evolved as an alarm system, a way to escape danger and pass on our genes.

Like you, I’ve attended many ‘active listening’ workshops and professional development trainings. The basic instructions are something like this: Pay attention, lean forward with interest, make eye contact, affirm the speaker quietly with a head nod or ‘hum’, occasionally restate the speaker’s words or key phrases, and repeat. Sometimes that can be great advice and other times this approach can feel wooden and mechanical, diminishing understanding and trust.

An important first step in developing empathic listening begins with developing empathy, kindness and acceptance of ourselves as leaders. Before we are able to build bonds within school teams in stable times or times of transition and change, we must build bonds of support for ourselves. Before we can thoughtfully consider others’ feeling, we must thoughtfully recognize and understand our own feelings.

Empathy, according to psychologist and science journalist, Daniel Goleman, in his Harvard Business Review article, What Makes a Leader, is an essential leadership skill. It does not mean becoming a doormat, passively agreeing to others with whom you disagree, or trying to please everyone all the time. Instead, empathy is about thoughtfully and intelligently taking others’ perspective, recognizing their emotions, staying out of judgment, and communicating understanding of others. With empathy, school leaders are in a better position to consider not only others’ emotions, but their needs, and values, again, strengthening true connection even across cultural, racial, gender, and ethnic differences.

Excellence in school leadership also requires clarity and authentic listening. Too often school leaders listen to ‘fix or solve’ a perceived problem that calls for empathetic listening. Sadly, other times leaders listen long enough for the speaker to stop talking. We may be listening and evaluating, or worse, judging others through a harsh lens. At times, we are listening for what we want to hear, expect to hear, or hope to hear, again, diminishing true connection.

To listen to another begins with noticing, and mindful awareness. Mindful listening is about noticing when you’re fully present and when you’re not. It encourages school leaders to notice and to understand that each conversation is the relationship.

Here is a powerful empathetic listening practice to enhance your readiness to listen fully and to broadened and build trustworthy relationships and connections.

Empathetic Listening Practice
Expressing genuine interest in another person fosters empathy and connection. This practice is especially well-suited for difficult conversations and for expressing support. Research suggests that using this practice can help others feel understood and can improve relationship satisfaction, supporting outstanding leadership.

How to Practice Empathetic Listening
Find a quiet place where you can talk without interruption or distraction. Invite a conversation, following these steps. You don’t need to cover every step, but the more you do cover, the more effective this practice is likely to be.

Step One: Paraphrase. Once the other person has finished expressing a thought, pause and paraphrase or mirror back what he or she said to make sure you understand and to show that you are paying attention. Helpful ways to paraphrase include “What I hear you saying is...” “It sounds like...” and “If I understand you right....” Be careful to avoid parroting, which can sound phony.

Step Two: Ask open questions. An open question is a question that you could not possibly know the answer to. Examples of open questions include: “What did you learn from that experience? How did that shape your opinion?” Open questions move the speaker into a new way of thinking. When appropriate, ask questions to encourage the other person to elaborate on his or her thoughts and feelings.

Step Three: Express empathy. If the other person voices negative feelings, strive to validate these feelings rather than questioning or defending against them. For example, if the speaker expresses frustration, try to consider why he or she feels that way, regardless of whether you think that feeling is justified or whether you would feel that way yourself were you in his or her position. You might respond, “I can understand how that situation could cause frustration.”

Step Four: Use engaged body language. Show that you are engaged and interested by making eye contact, nodding, facing the other person, and maintaining an open and relaxed body posture. Avoid attending to distractions in your environment, such as checking your phone. Be mindful of your facial expressions: Avoid expressions that might communicate disapproval or disgust.

Step Five: Avoid judgment. Your goal is to understand the other person’s perspective and accept it for what it is, even if you disagree with it. Try not to interrupt with counter-arguments or mentally prepare a rebuttal while the other person is speaking.

Step Six: Avoid giving advice. Problem-solving is likely to be more effective after both conversation partners understand one another’s perspective and feel heard. Offering unsolicited advice is often counterproductive and diminishes connectedness.

Step Seven: Take turns. After the other person has spoken and you have engaged in these active listening steps, pause, and ask if it’s okay for you to share your perspective. When sharing your perspective, express yourself as clearly as possible using “I” statements. It may be helpful, when relevant, to express empathy for the other person’s perspective.

Step Eight: Mindfully Observe What Happens

  • Notice when you choose to listen and when you become distracted.
  • Notice what it’s like to give a person your undivided attention without advising, correcting, or fixing.
  • Notice what happens in the communication when you interrupt and what happens when you don’t.
  • Notice what happens when there is a lull in the conversation, and you ask, “Is there more?”
  • Notice what happens when you let go of your agenda, and instead focus on being present.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.